Milford Sound, a New Zealand treasure

Postcard perfect: Mitre Peak reflected in Milford Sound

My number one must-see in New Zealand was Milford Sound. This time our pandemic-induced rescheduling worked to our advantage. When I’d first planned this trip in March 2020, the Milford Sound Road (a world-famous drive I definitely wanted to make) was severely damaged and closed. We could still fly in, maybe, but that wasn’t what I envisioned and gave us little wiggle room if the weather in this rainiest of rainy places didn’t cooperate. Now, in October 2022, the road was open and we had a two-day window to hopefully see the Sound on a reasonably clear day.

The day started out sunny and promising in Queenstown, but as we drove two hours south and then west past flocks of sheep and large herds of domestic stags towards Te Anau, the weather turned increasingly gray and ominous. By the time we stopped for lunch and provisions at Te Anau, a light rain had begun. The weather only got worse as we drove another 40 miles/50 minutes to the cabin I’d chosen for a two-night stay at Eglinton Valley Camp at Knobs Flat. The camp is located well within Fiordland National Park, the home of Milford Sound. I thought our modest one-room cabin was in the perfect location, about half-way between the town of Te Anau (where lots of visitors to the Sound stay) and Milford Sound (where there is an expensive lodge and a campground, but where it’s possible to get stuck if the Milford Sound road is closed to not-that-infrequent mudslides, ice, and related road damage. [Eglinton Valley Camp also offers RV spots for those traveling that way.]

The cabin boasted a pretty hike to a nearby waterfall and other longer hikes around Lake Gunn, but with the rain now coming down hard, we found ourselves cozy and snug but with not a lot to do for the rest of the day. Oh well, worse things could happen. Our host advised us that it might be worth driving the 34 miles to Milford Sound anyway just to see what the weather was like there. Besides, Milford Sound is supposed to be extra special in the rain as a myriad of waterfalls along its walls come to life. We read and heard that pitch quite a few times. When blue sky finally peeked out, we decided to give it a try.

Milford Sound Road as we begin the ascent from Knobs Flat

I was a little worried about the twists and turns on a wet mountain road, but the Milford Sound Road was in good shape and David is a champ at driving. [Check for conditions on the Milford Sound Road here.] It actually snowed on us at higher elevations and the misty waterfalls streaming off the sheer walls around us were beautiful. Still, the low clouds and rain/snow made for poor visibility and a scenic overlook supposedly offering a view of Mount Crosscut nestled between Mount Christina and Mount Lyttle did no such thing. [See photo at end of this post.] Avalanche warnings made the approach to the Homer Tunnel feel a little ominous and the steep, wet road awaiting us on the other side was made even more exciting by hairpin turns. As we descended into the valley, long thin waterfalls poured off the rocky walls around us.

The Homer Tunnel and beyond

We arrived safe and sound at Milford Sound to more rain and clouds. I didn’t even bother to get out and snap photos at the Sound. The low clouds and rain made it impossible to see far and the surrounding walls and mountains were totally hidden behind the gray. I did go into the tourist office, though, while David waited in the car as there’s only pay parking and we didn’t plan a long stay. I walked into an empty office with a sign saying they were short-handed. This was to be a common occurrence everywhere we went in New Zealand. The Covid-19 pandemic and New Zealand’s related strict rules on immigration and guest workers had left many businesses short-staffed and begging for workers. After wandering a bit, I ran into a woman who seemed to be a janitor in the cafeteria area and asked her if anyone was working the front desk. She asked me to wait and was soon back with a young man who offered to sell me tickets for a boat tour of the Sound leaving soon. When I mentioned the rain, he told me it wasn’t really raining. Gesturing with my dripping umbrella, I disagreed. Then, he gave me the line about how some people say Milford Sound is better in the rain because of the waterfalls. Having seen lots of these thin, long streams on our way in, I was more interested in actually being able to see the Sound. When I pointed out that the weather forecast looked good for the next morning and we could come back early, he finally agreed that, yes, if I wanted to see the sides of the Sound and the peaks surrounding it, the next day would be better. In fact, it was slated to be a relatively rare clear morning. And, oh yeah, there would still be lots of waterfalls given all the rain that had fallen today. We’d hoped to be off early on the next leg of our journey the following day, but the great part about staying so close at Eglinton Valley Camp was that we had a two-day window to try for clear weather. Leaving a bit later than originally planned was no big deal. It was an easy decision, and I bought tickets for a boat tour with Mitre Peak Cruises (a smaller boat company recommended by our host at Eglinton Valley Camp) at 8:50am the next morning.

Waterfall near Eglinton Valley Camp

The drive back down towards Knobs Flat remained gray and drizzly until we were nearly back at our cabin. The sun came out then and we were able to hike to the nearby waterfall, an easy ramble across a small creek and through bright green woods. With time on our hands afterwards, we drove about ten minutes to Lake Gunn Nature Walk (still within Fiordland National Park) and enjoyed another easy walk along well-marked trails to the lake where rain arrived again and sent us back to our cabin for the evening.

I was beyond excited the next morning as we packed up and headed back to Milford Sound. The weather looked good, but who knew what it would be like by the time we got to the Sound. I scoured the scattered clouds, worried that the rain would return. There was no need. The weather continued to clear as we drove toward the Sound. We arrived bright and early to glorious, blue-bird skies. Perfection!

Check-in was easy and we milled around with other excited passengers before being called to board. The boat was comfortable with less than twenty passengers aboard and plenty of comfortable seating inside and room on both the bow and stern viewing decks. Hot drinks were available to take the chill off when we came in from the crisp and windy decks. We were the first boat out although others were docked and waiting, but it wasn’t particularly crowded as it was shoulder season on a Thursday.

What can I say? The boat ride through Milford Sound to the Tasman Sea was all I’d hoped for. Brilliant blue sky and water ringed by rocky cliffs and snow-covered peaks, thin temporary waterfalls spilled off the sheer walls (some we were told would dry up before the day was out) between the more substantial permanent waterfalls.

Fiordland crested penguin

We spotted a fur seal and a couple of Fiordland crested penguins, we laughed as spray from Stirling Falls drenched the stern deck of our boat. When we finally docked after as perfect of a cruise as I could have hoped for, we were treated to final postcard views of Mitre Peak reflected in Milford Sound from the parking lot. [See lead photo.] Happy sigh.

Kea bird at the Mount Crosscut scenic overlook on the Milford Sound Road

The ride back down Milford Sound Road was a treat, too. We stopped off at that scenic overlook for an entirely different view from the day before. There was Mount Crosscut, just as promised! And the sign warning us not to feed the Kea birds turned out to have a point: A handsome specimen with emerald green wing feathers sat nearby, clearly hoping we didn’t read signs.

What a difference a day makes!
[Mount Crosscut in the distance, viewed (on a clear day)
between Mount Christina and Mount Lyttle]

We felt like we’d actually been lucky to see Milford Sound and the Milford Sound Road in both rain and sun, so different, but both beautiful. In high spirits, we drove on to our next destination: Wanaka and an Albert Town AirBnB.

2 thoughts on “Milford Sound, a New Zealand treasure”

  1. Great blog on the South Island and the glorious Milford Sound! My sister and I were there in Oct 82 and still remember it clearly, 40 years on! Loved Te Anu and Queenstown where we stayed. Arriving into Queenstown on bus late in the evening is when I “saw the Southern Cross for the first time”!! Awesome n unforgettable!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.